Reading The Law of Blood can help us understand the beliefs that animated National Socialism, and help us see what they were not.
John D. Wilsey discusses his book, God’s Cold Warrior: The Life and Faith of John Foster Dulles.
Brian A. Smith (00:03):
Welcome to Liberty Law Talk. This podcast is a production of the online journal, Law & Liberty, and hosted by our staff. Please visit us at lawliberty.org, and thank you for listening.
James Patterson (00:17):
Hello, you are listening to Liberty Law Talk, the podcast for Law & Liberty. Today is January 6th, 2023. My name is James M. Patterson, and I’m a Contributing Editor to Law & Liberty as well as Associate Professor and Chair in the Politics Department at Ave Maria University, a Fellow at the Center for Religion, Culture, and Democracy, and at the Institute for Human Ecology, and the President of the Ciceronian Society.
My guest today is Dr. John D. Wilsey. He is Associate Professor of Church History and Philosophy at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and book review editor at the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology. He is also an ordained pastor and has pastored at several churches in Virginia and North Carolina as well as teaching both at K-12 and university-level positions.
2017 through ’18, he was the William E. Simon visiting fellow in Religion and Public Life with the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton Seminary. He has written three books: One Nation Under God: An Evangelical Critique of Christian America, and American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of An Idea. Today, our topic is his third book, God’s Cold Warrior: The Life and Faith of John Foster Dulles. I should also mention that Dr. Wilsey is a fellow at CRCD with me, so Dr. Wilsey, welcome to Liberty Law Talk.
John Wilsey (01:47):
James, thanks so much for having me. I’m glad to be here.
James Patterson (01:50):
Well, if things get a little informal during this podcast, it’s because John and I go way back and so we’re having a good time today. But a person who did not have the reputation of having a good time was the subject of this book, John Foster Dulles. Was he as stern and cold-blooded and marble-like as his reputation would seem?
John Wilsey (02:23):
Yes and no. I’ll start with that to frustrate your listeners right off the bat. But before we get into that, I just do want to thank you, James, for having me on this podcast. I love Law & Liberty, avid reader from way back. Had the honor and privilege to contribute some writing pieces to Law & Liberty recently, and just a big fan. A big fan of yours as well, and I’m very grateful for our friendship. It’s approaching 10 years now, I believe.
James Patterson (02:58):
John Wilsey (02:58):
So it’s a great honor and a privilege to be with you. Yes, John Foster Dulles definitely has that rep for being sort of a bucket of cold ice water. I can’t remember what year it was, I think it might have been 1956, Time Magazine voted him as the most boring man in America. And maybe most famously of all, a lot of your listeners will be aware of this, that Carol Burnett recorded a very famous parody song about him for the Ed Sullivan Show and for the Jack Parr show, which was the Tonight Show back in those days, and you can go on YouTube and look it up.
Just do a search on Carol Burnett, John Foster Dulles, and you can see the recording. I think it’s on the Jack Parr show of her recording of that song. It’s hilarious. If you really want to get deep into that, you can look at some other YouTube videos where she gives some of the backstory to that recording, which is also very funny and very interesting. So he did have that reputation. In public, he was very serious and very staid. He was that way, I think, by conviction. He had aspired to the Office of Secretary of State for all of his life. It was a lifelong dream come true because his grandfather, John W. Foster, was Secretary of State under Benjamin Harrison and his uncle on his mother’s side, Robert Lansing, was Secretary of State under Wilson and he had portraits of those two men in his office at the State Department during his entire tenure.
So he had sort of a sense of destiny about him in that role. And he also had a very, very serious perspective or posture towards American foreign policy and America’s role in the world. It was the beginning of the Cold War. We often think of the Cold War… Many people think of the Cold War in those early years as culminating 1962 with the Cuban Missile Crisis. But those years that he was Secretary of State were very serious years. Many, many crises that they didn’t bring the world quite to the brink as 1962 in the Cuban Missile Crisis, but they were every bit as dangerous as the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
I’m thinking about a couple of Berlin crises occurring in the 1950s. I’m thinking about Quemoy and Matsu, which that was a crisis that occurred in 1953, ’54, again in 1958. Then of course, you had the Dien Bien Phu crisis in 1954 in which the French asked the United States to use nuclear weapons to support them in their conflict with the Viet Minh. So very serious times, very serious times. The world could have gone to nuclear war during those years just as easily as at any other point in American history. And he had definitely an awareness of the seriousness of the times, and he was a serious man. He was a serious man when it came to serious things, which I’ve always respected about him. Richard Nixon told a story about him that I think is very… It helps us to really sort of get a picture of him and his seriousness.
In cabinet meetings, when Eisenhower ran his cabinet meetings, he ran them, he modeled those cabinet meetings off of his meetings when he was a five-star general when he was Commander of the Allied forces in Europe. When he would have meetings with the senior staff, he always allowed everybody to speak their mind on their opinion on any issue they were talking about, no matter what their expertise was. And he carried that forth in his meetings as president with the cabinet. So even the postmaster general, if he had an opinion on the economy or if he had an opinion on, say, civil rights or opinion on American diplomacy, his views were just as welcome as anybody else. So Nixon tells this story in the oral history that when Dulles would be asked a question by the president, he would take some time to think carefully about how he was going to respond and answer the question. And he would receive the question and he would look at the ceiling and you could tell that he was formulating his answer, and that he would spend 60 seconds, 90 seconds, just staring at the ceiling. And it was awkward, especially at the beginning, at the beginning of the administration when people didn’t really know him very well. Even Eisenhower didn’t really know him as well. Him staring at the ceiling for several seconds was strange to people. And then he opened his mouth and he would offer a very logical, a very organized, a very comprehensive answer to the question and very impressive answer because he demonstrated himself to be master of the issues that were confronting the United States and the State Department.
But on the other hand, he was also a frivolous personality. I always described his sense of humor as kind of zany. With his close family and his close friends, he had a hilarious sense of humor. He was known for having a very loud laugh. He would throw his head back guffawing and laugh really hard. His brother, who was head of CIA, Allen Dulles, once said that he thought Hitler had a guffaw. He said, “I thought Hitler had a laugh like a donkey.” But he said that his brother’s laugh even put Hitler to shame, which is a strange comparison. But Dulles, Allen Dulles, had met Hitler on a few occasions and had been privy to his loud laugh. He compared his brother to Hitler, which was kind of funny. I write about one instance. His daughter talks about this in her oral history interview that he once embarrassed her and her friends. She was about 18 years old, and he posed as a waiter at a dinner party that she was having with her friends, and he stuffed a pillow up his shirt, took a carving knife and split his tummy with his pillow. Feathers went everywhere like in an act of hara-kiri to get a big laugh out of everybody, and she was embarrassed by that. He thought it was hilarious.
So in private with his friends and with his close friends and his family, he could be quite zany. But he was deeply introverted, he was a serious man, and he kind of knew when to sort of separate times for seriousness and times for frivolity.
James Patterson (10:30):
So this is when I ask you to pass the knife check, maybe briefly explain the knife check.
John Wilsey (10:41):
Yes, yes, and yes. And there were a lot of people that would comment on his laugh and how ready he was to laugh and how he loved a good joke and how he told a lot of jokes. His support staff, his secretaries, loved his laugh. They could hear him laughing in his office with the door closed, so forth, but he didn’t show that personality as much to the public.
I’ll say one other thing about his sense of humor that, I mentioned Carol Burnett, she gave that parody song, and she presented it on live television a couple of times during the same week in 1958. The first time that she performed, I think, was on the Ed Sullivan Show, I believe. Somebody from Dulles’ staff called her at home and said, “The Secretary did not have a chance to see the recording of the song. Can you go back on and do it again?” And she, of course, was thrilled because she was just starting out and she was kind of making herself famous off of this. So I think she went on the Jack Parr show, I could have the order backwards, but she went on the Jack Parr show, Tonight Show, did it again, and the secretary saw it. He did not comment anything to her-
John Wilsey (12:03):
He did not comment anything to her, he didn’t get in touch with her, but she was watching Meet the Press on Sunday morning. She was watching the television. I think she was washing dishes or something at the same time, TV was on. She was watching Meet the Press. Dulles was being interviewed, and when the interview was concluding, the interviewer said, “Well, now Mr. Dulles, we appreciate you being on the program with us. There’s just one last question I have. Can you tell us about this young lady, Carol Burnett, and that song she has about you?” And then his very dry cut away. He didn’t miss a beat. He just grinned a little bit and said, “Well, I don’t like to discuss matters of the heart in public.” So she tells that story. I’ve heard her tell that story on The Diane Rehm Show when she was being interviewed about, oh, 10 years ago or something like that. And she has also a couple of places on YouTube where she has told that story.
James Patterson (13:15):
So I’m not sure if I should tease the readers on what the knife check is when I asked my question. But of course, this is a detail from the private lives of the children in which Dulles would require all of his kids to have a knife on them. So this is at his titular airport, I don’t think you’re still allowed to do that.
John Wilsey (13:39):
No, I don’t. I think that’s discouraged.
James Patterson (13:43):
It’s frowned on.
John Wilsey (13:44):
I think that is discouraged, frowned on. But yes, he had three children. He had two sons, John and Avery, and he had a daughter whose name is Lillias. And Lillias was the youngest daughter, and Avery was the youngest son. John, of course, was the first son. And he required them each to be carrying a pocket knife on them at all times. And he would make sure that they were carrying their knife when he would demand it. He would say, “Pocket knife.” And if they didn’t have it, they had to pay him a quarter.
James Patterson (14:18):
So good. So one of the unique features of this book is that it is a biography of faith. And one of the things about biographies of faith is that normally there’s some sort of obvious hook. And the thing about Dulles is that he doesn’t necessarily seem to have an obvious hook. And when you read the book, one of the things you learn is that he’s not necessarily the most devout person, and at least the way that maybe I as a Catholic and you as a Baptist would normally regard it. And one other thing just to shape the question is that it’s odd that you have to tell his story in a way the collapse of the main line has left them unable to tell their own.
John Wilsey (15:17):
James Patterson (15:17):
So tell us a little bit about the peculiar nature of this latter-day mainline protestant and how this faith functioned. I know this is the heart of the book, so you don’t want to give too much away.
John Wilsey (15:30):
Yeah. Well, Dulles inherited a faith from the liberal social gospel tradition. His father, Allen Macy Dulles, was a pastor and a theologian. He was the pastor of a church in Detroit before he was born, and then for 17 years from right around the time that John Foster was born, he was the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Watertown, New York, in Upstate New York, near Syracuse and near the Ontario Shore. And he was the pastor there for 17 years. He pastored there till 1904. And he left that pastor to take a professorship at Auburn Theological Seminary in Auburn, New York. And he served in that role as professor of apologetics and theism at Auburn Seminary until his death in 1931. In fact, literally to his death. He died on a Thursday and I think he was preparing to go to class, to teach class the morning that he died.
His father was a liberal. He had studied at the University of Leipzig, so he had studied under the German higher critical method and was a liberal. And so Foster grew up going to church three days a week, listening to sermons, drinking deeply from his father’s faith. Dulles was at the heart of the Presbyterian fundamentalist modernist controversy in the 1920s. He was there at the General Assembly in 1924, ’25, and ’26, and he was very famously the council for Harry Emerson Fosdick, perhaps the most famous liberal protestant of the day. And while he was working on the issues of the controversy, he was being coached by his father.
The correspondence between the two of them during those heady days of the fundamentalist modernist controversy in the presbyterian denomination is rich with the two of them just talking about the importance of getting this right for the modernists and for putting the fundamentalists away. And Dulles’ contribution to the controversy was really decisive. It was behind the scenes, but it was a decisive kind of a victory that he represented. In 1937, he was at the center of the ecumenical movement that was taking place there in Oxford, England at the Oxford Conference in 1937, in which he had a turning point, a spiritual turning point.
Prior to that time, I mean, he was an elder at his church, he was an elder at Park Avenue Presbyterian Church, which later merged with the Presbyterian Church in New York. But during those years, the 20s and early 30s, he was not really involved in the church, didn’t go to church very often, didn’t take his family to church very often. He enjoyed sailing on Sundays, he enjoyed playing tennis on Sundays, and so he didn’t go to church very much. But then he went to the Oxford Conference and he saw something that he didn’t think was possible. He saw representatives from all over the world, all over the Christian world who were getting together in Oxford to put aside their theological differences, to think about ways for the churches to actually have a hand in solving international problems of the day.
So, of course, in 1937, Hitler is rising to power, and the Japanese have already established themselves in Manchuria. Looks like there’s going to be another war coming up. And Dulles became something of a new convert in a way after 1937. He became convinced that the churches definitely had a role to play in international politics, and that it was possible for them to put away their theological differences.
That tells you something about Dulles, that he was not interested as much in theology. He was interested in pragmatics. He saw the faith as a pragmatic faith. He didn’t see it as a doctrinal faith. And that’s certainly also very consistent with his liberal upbringing. As a liberal, he didn’t place an emphasis on theology. In fact, he didn’t believe himself in the virgin birth. He didn’t believe in the literal physical resurrection of Christ. He believed in the ethic of the church, the ethic of Jesus, and he thought that’s what the essence of Christianity was. It was an operative pragmatic faith, not a doctrinal or an abstract faith, which means that his expression of his faith was not going to be devotional, it was not going to be like a John Bunyan or a Charles Finney or some kind of a devotional thing. He was not Oswald Chambers. He wasn’t somebody like that.
I see a connection between his desire to live the life of an ethical Christian with this very public expression of piety that he offers as a public figure. Some people would look at that and say, “Oh, this is just him being a hypocrite, or he’s not a real Christian because he just uses their faith to advance a public agenda.” That’s liberalism. So I see him as being not a hypocrite at all, but a thoroughgoing consistent liberal in that regard. It’s interesting too that you say that it’s weird that I’m the one that has to be the one to shed light on this. And I think that’s right. I think that as a person who takes the faith seriously, I’m interested in people who thought of themselves as serious Christians, even if I’m not myself a co-signer with that particular vision of the faith.
James Patterson (21:58):
Yeah. In fact, I have in front of me the dissent of the modernist cartoon, where they’re walking-
John Wilsey (22:04):
James Patterson (22:04):
… down the stairs. Judging from the criteria that you offered me just now, I’d say that he’s halfway down the staircase. For those of you who don’t know, there’s this very famous cartoon, a fundamentalist cartoon that was eventually used by Bryant in the Seven Questions in Dispute, and that was Bibles, fallible or infallible, manmade or not made in God’s image, et cetera. So that means, and it’s funny that the person in the middle of the staircase actually looks like Dulles.
John Wilsey (22:34):
Yeah, I know exactly what you’re talking about. I don’t have the cartoon in front of me, but I’ve seen it so many times.
James Patterson (22:39):
John Wilsey (22:40):
I know exactly what you’re talking about.
James Patterson (22:43):
So this sort of liberal Protestantism that’s a little reluctant to take what they might regard as superstitious or outmoded views of Christianity, all the same, still seems to be fundamental to the moral vision that Dulles brings to American political affairs. You show that there’s this tension in Dulles. On the one hand, he sustains this view about natural right or natural law, this idea of a moral law of the universe. Maybe I shouldn’t call it quite natural law, that might be too… It’s smoke of papism for him. But at the same time, there’s a change in policy for him where he’s less of a belligerent in his young life, doesn’t go full pacifist, but he’s still skeptical of it. And then later in life, obviously he’s quite different on this view. And so there’s this continuity in the moral basis, but a discontinuity in its application. And this is probably, at least for me, this was my favorite part of the book, exploring how he has to work all throughout his career trying to sort this issue out.
John Wilsey (24:03):
James Patterson (24:03):
Let’s sort this issue out.
John Wilsey (24:03):
Yes. I love the way you put that. There’s another book, another religious biography that was written in 1985 by Mark Toulouse, who was a professor for years at the University of Toronto. I actually got to know him at an academic conference a couple years ago and we had a wonderful dinner together. His critique of Dulles was exactly what you’re saying. I think he’s right about this. I don’t agree with him fully about his assessment, but I do think he’s right about this, that Dulles had a transformation, a transformation from, the way he put it, was from prophet of realism to priest of nationalism, which is, I think, a really interesting way to put it. When Toulouse talks about a transformation, he talks about a radical transformation, and I don’t agree that it’s as radical as he says that it is. I do think that he does go through a change, and I think you just put your finger on it there, but I don’t think it’s as radical. Let me just flesh this out a little bit, if you don’t mind.
He talked about the moral law all the time after 1937, when he was at the Federal Council of Churches, when he was help setting up the UN, when he was a member of the Council on Foreign Ministers, and when he was heading up the talks that resulted in the Treaty of San Francisco that ended the war in the Pacific in 1952. And then, as a senator, very brief stint as a senator from New York and as Secretary of State, talked about the moral law all the time. And one question I get a lot from people is, what does he mean? What does he mean by that? You talked about natural law and I had to struggle a little bit when I was writing the book. Do I call this natural law or do I say it’s the moral law? Because it sounds a lot like natural law when he talks about it, but it’s not quite that.
James Patterson (26:11):
That’s right. Yeah. I had to catch myself, too.
John Wilsey (26:13):
Yeah. One of my drafts of the manuscript I had to go through and change, I went back and changed, because I was saying natural law for a long time, and I went back and changed all the references I could find to moral law, but I think there is one that I missed. I don’t know if you caught it or not, but I think-
James Patterson (26:30):
I will tell you, you never go back and read your own work. You never do it.
John Wilsey (26:35):
Never go back. I’m sure that I found it when I had the finished product in my hands.
James Patterson (26:40):
John Wilsey (26:43):
But the moral law, I think that’s a better way because it’s a liberal Protestant’s way to see it, not a Catholic’s way to see it. So that’s the one thing I would say. The first thing I would say is how he defines it. There’s a couple of facets to this, one, that human nature is sinful. Now, he always believed that. He was very persuaded by the Federalist Papers, that Publius’ lack of confidence in human nature. I think he’s definitely echoing that. I think he’s echoing also scripture. He believed human nature is sinful. It was always seek power at the expense of others and evil men will always threaten order. He also believed that change was inevitable. This is something that he latched onto even as far back as his undergraduate days when he was at Princeton.
He was Princeton class of 1908. He wrote a senior thesis on change and he believed that change was inevitable and it threatened order, it threatened peace and security. He believed that God created the world in a moral way. He believed that the world was a moral system governed by just law and right and wrong are built into the entire created order. So he was an admirer of Lincoln. Of course, this is something that Lincoln talked about. He saw the Christian ethic as the clearest statement of the moral law, so specifically, Christ’s admonition to do unto others as you would have them do unto you, forgiveness of wrongs will disarm your opponent, the sacrifice of prerogatives that you have for the sake of others, defending the defenseless, the dignity of the human individual, the liberal notion of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, something that he took very seriously. He was someone who held to a very high view of freedom; freedom under just law, freedom over property, and economic and religious freedom were very, very strong commitments that he had all his life that he never changed.
He believed that power should be shared, distributed in order to check the ambitions of human beings and that moral law was universal and it was irresistible. And because of that, he believed that, as long as the United States was committed to the moral law and animated by the moral law, that the United States would ultimately win the Cold War because the Soviet Union was atheistic, it was godless, and it was opposed to the moral law. It had set itself up in opposition to the moral law. And if you’re going to do that, you’re already on the losing side. So throughout Dulles’ public life, you read his speeches, read his articles, his books, he has two books that he wrote, one in 1938, one in 1950, the moral law is central to his philosophy of politics and of diplomacy.
James Patterson (30:05):
So while he was entering into diplomacy, he ran into someone we’ve mentioned before. He had this funny little mustache. And you mentioned at the opening of his book that there is this picture of Dulles with Hitler. And tell me how we get to this, where we get Dulles, who steers his way more into what we might call white-shoe law firm, eventually makes his way into diplomatic life. You mentioned this is part of the family trade, but he does have to take a particular path that ultimately gets him to being the architect of a Cold War response.
I’m especially interested in this question because one of the things your book helped me appreciate was how Dulles had to essentially invent an American approach to global affairs because the United States before that hadn’t needed one, except in a very pragmatic trade relation sort of way, because we had counted for so long on the British supremacy of the seas. With that in decline, Dulles has to emerge. There’s this idea of the moral law, but how do we get from a guy who’s hanging out with the chancellor to someone who is as opposed to totalitarianism as anyone in the country?
John Wilsey (31:39):
That’s great question and it’s a big question, too.
James Patterson (31:43):
John Wilsey (31:44):
No, it’s a great question. He is a member of the Reparations Commission at the Versailles Conference. He was a fairly young man. He was in his early 30s when he was on his way to Versailles in 1919. When World War I broke out in 1914, he had just gotten his job at Sullivan & Cromwell, which was an international law firm in Manhattan, as you say, white-shoe law firm. That’s an interesting story about how he got that job. He got that job through his grandfather, former Secretary of State, Foster.
In 1911, he joined that law firm. By 1914, in the onset of war, he was already representing Sullivan & Cromwell with the Government of Panama, as well as Costa Rica. I believe he may have even gone down to Nicaragua, as well, and he made a couple of trips down there to Central America to visit various diplomats from those countries to ensure that, when the war came, that those countries would, in fact, declare war on Germany with the United States, which of course did happen in 1917. The South American country, Central American countries did do that. They were faithful to a promise they kept to John Foster Dulles. He was sent there by his uncle, Robert Lansing, on those missions. So early, early on in his career as a lawyer, he is already representing the State Department, as well as his law firm. When war broke out in 1917, he wanted to be an artillerist. He tried to volunteer for the artillery. He couldn’t get in because his eyesight was so bad. On one of his trips down there to Central America, he contracted malaria and it messed up his eyesight. So he couldn’t be in combat arms in the Army, but he did manage to secure himself a role with the Signal Corps and that turned into a job with the War Trade Board.
He was a captain in the Army and worked for the War Trade Board. When the war ended, through his connection with Bernard Baruch, who was an old family friend going back to his childhood, Bernard Baruch had him come to Versailles as his personal assistant. Later on, he got a seat on the Reparations Commission. And he learned a lot of lessons from Versailles. He learned that static treaty commitments would always lead to war. He learned that, if you grind your former opponent’s face in the mud, as it were, humiliate them, the time would come when they would seek revenge and start another war, several other lessons that he learned. Now, those lessons he did not learn until later in the ’30s and the ’40s, but he did come away from Versailles a much wiser man. He came back in late 1919. He started his work back up with his law firm.
At the height of his career in the ’20s, he managed over a billion dollars in loans to countries in Europe and in Central America. And in 1933, he took two trips to Germany, one in July, or rather June, I should say, and one in December in 1933, where he was helping to renegotiate the terms of German payments of reparations, which of course, during the 1920s and early ’30s, that was a constant bugaboo that […] was trying to work with. He had the Dawes Plan and the Young Plan and those things. And so in one of those visits, I think it was the one in June, he is photographed with Hitler. It’s a weird photograph. It’s a photograph that I found in the archives there at Princeton. He’s in his …
John Wilsey (36:03):
Photograph that I found in the archives there at Princeton, is in its own folder all by itself. And there’s no other pictures in there. And all it says on the back is JFD 1933.
James Patterson (36:10):
I’m so sorry.
John Wilsey (36:14):
And it’s so weird.
James Patterson (36:14):
Nothing else interesting about this photograph, except the year.
John Wilsey (36:19):
It’s so weird. Yeah, it was so strange because there’s nothing at all for commentary, and I’ve never seen any biographer forever mention the picture. I was able to put two and two together and I’ve figured out that’s what he was doing. He was there in Germany. Hitler had come to power as chancellor in January of 1933. And he was negotiating with Hitler on reparations payments and that’s why he was there. It’s a weird picture too, because Hitler is in a tuxedo.
James Patterson (36:48):
Oh yeah, not what you usually see.
John Wilsey (36:51):
Not what you usually see Hitler wearing, usually he is in a frumpy suit or a military uniform. Hitler is grinning broadly. It’s a candid sort of a picture taken in a ballroom full of people. And there he is talking to John Foster Dulles. In 1933, nobody knew what Hitler would become. We know now.
James Patterson (37:14):
John Wilsey (37:16):
But then nobody knew. Was a defender of Hitler all the way up until I think 1937, saying that he was kind of getting a bad rap. And after 1937, I believe he changed his mind about Hitler. But regardless of those things, your broader question about how does he go from being sort of focused on his career as a lawyer and really spending the 1920s just really amassing a massive fortune. Not being all that interested in politics as it were. He is interested in internationalism, he’s interested in war during this time, of course, in the twenties, war is being outlawed by governments all over the world. 1928, the United States Senate passed the Kellogg-Briand [P]act, which was an act that outlawed war, and it passed unanimously in the Senate.
James Patterson (38:10):
We did it!
John Wilsey (38:12):
I think it was signed by Coolidge, Herbert Hoover who’d won the election in 1920, was a pacifist. He was a supporter of that act. So that sort of pacifism was in the air. He was going around the country, speaking on internationalism and war. He wrote several articles on the need for the United States to be engaged in the world economy. We think of the United States as being isolationist in the 1920s. Of course, it was to a certain extent, but on economic matters, the United States was not at all isolationist in the 1920s. And I think that’s represented well by Dulles.
Dulles was constantly advocating for a very vigorous involvement in the world economy. And the United States was involved in the world economy, the twenties. Initially I think that his concern with politics began in 1935. Hitler’s on the rise, the Japanese are on the rise, and the Soviet Union is certainly a threat. And he wrote an article for The Atlantic Monthly called “The Road to Peace.” And that article that he wrote was really his first foray into serious engagement with diplomacy, international politics, and American involvement. How do you avoid war? He says in the very beginning of that piece, it looks as if the world is moving inexorably again towards war. And he thought that was a crazy process. He’d been at Versailles. He had been there to oversee the war to end all wars. Pacifism had been in the air for so long, and here we are getting ready to have another war. No one could have foreseen this. And yet because of Versailles, because the Treaty of Versailles was failing and because Wilson’s vision of the Fourteen Points was not being taken seriously, war was coming again.
So you really do see in 1935 is a sort of keynote year in his career. He really begins to become interested and that sets him on a path. In 1936, he gave a major address at Princeton University that echoed many of the same themes from that 1935 article. And on he went, he was off to the races in international diplomacy after 1935.
James Patterson (40:42):
Oh, so that’s very good. Okay. I did have a bit of a spicy question to end this, if you don’t mind spicy questions?
John Wilsey (40:50):
I love spicy questions. You kidding me?
James Patterson (40:53):
Yeah. So would you characterize this transition after ’35, by the time he is in the Eisenhower White House, emphatically a proponent of the civil religion, this sort of national faith. Would this be an appropriately understood to be a kind of Christian nationalism? And I asked this question because you’ve written for Law & Liberty on the subject, and it’s very much part of a lot of the discourse among conservatives in the United States, especially among American Protestants. And what makes the question so spicy to me is this is a liberal Protestant.
John Wilsey (41:37):
Yes. Yes. I’m so glad you asked this. And maybe we could do another episode sometime on Christian nationalism-
James Patterson (41:44):
This is a bit unfair.
John Wilsey (41:47):
… right there. But you make it-
James Patterson (41:47):
Give you five minutes to answer this.
John Wilsey (41:48):
That’s okay. But to make it quick, yes. For most of American history, it’s been, I should say this… Let me characterize it this way. Christian nationalism relies on history. Christian nationalism is always animated by a particular philosophy of history, particular method of history. And for most of American history, Christian nationalism has been articulated through the lens of a progressive view of history. So for most of the time, the nation has been situated in orientation towards the future. America is the land of the future. It’s the nation of the future. Thomas Paine said, “We have it in our power to begin the world anew.” John O’Sullivan, the guy that coined the term “manifest destiny,” said, that we are “the great nation of futurity.”
We’re going to turn our back on old Europe. We’re going to turn our back on tradition. We’re going to start over again. Our own motto. You look at your dollar bill, the reverse side of the Great seal of the United States. There’s two mottos. One is, I’m going to butcher the pronunciation to Latin, but Annuit cœptis, I think is the name is the way you say it, which means roughly, God has blessed our undertaking. It’s a quote from Virgil. And then the other one is Novus ordo seclorum, which is translated roughly a new order for the ages. So historically, most of the dominant way that Christian nationalism has been articulated has been to orient the nation to the future. It’s been a progressive historiographical kind of a philosophy. And John Foster Dulles is definitely in that school of thought.
He is a Christian nationalist of the early 20th century. He sees America as the nation of the future. He’s optimistic about America’s future. He’s optimistic about the future of the world because he sees America as the indispensable nation in bringing about an optimistic sort of a view. He’s a Wilsonian in that he sees America’s role is messianic. God has chosen America to lead an international order, first through the League of Nations, but then later through the United Nations. It’s going to lead the free world in this Manichean struggle against Soviet communism. And because America is on the side of the moral law and because America is a Christian nation, he says that kind of stuff all the time. That America is destined to win the Cold War. And the Soviet Union will eventually go down with all the other totalitarian regimes that have set themselves opposed to the moral law like the Nazis, like the Fascists in Italy, like the Japanese expansionists.
These were all groups and governments and entities that set themselves against God. And hey, the universe is created as a moral order. You cannot beat the system. So the United States being a Christian nation, being a nation committed to the moral law and to a moral order, to peace, to security, to justice, America will triumph. That’s very different from the Christian nationalism we see today, which is the conservative view that orients the nation towards the past. To the founding, the religious nature of the founding to the faith of the founding fathers and so forth and so on. That’s not the kind of Christian nationalist Dulles was. So in our conversations about Christian nationalism, and we do have to be specific and be precise about what historical orientation, historical perspective we’re talking about.
James Patterson (46:04):
The book is, God’s Cold Warrior: The Life and Faith of John Foster Dulles, the author, my good friend and wonderful scholar, Professor John D. Wilsey of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Thank you so much for coming onto Liberty Law Talk.
John Wilsey (46:21):
Thanks so much for having me, James. It’s a great, great privilege.
Brian A. Smith (46:25):
Thank you for listening to another episode of Liberty Law Talk. Be sure to follow us on Spotify, Apple, or wherever you get your podcasts. And please visit our journal at lawliberty.org.